‘Everybody knows …’ the politics of dissimulation

“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.”

Leonard Cohen

There comes a point in politics – and I think we’ve reached it in New Zealand – when it’s clear that political tactics and rhetoric become so cynical that they entirely part company with reality.

When that happens argument and facts ineffectively dissipate their energy in the face of the cynicism.

And, when that starts to happen, the best way to step back from the brink is not to argue detail and facts but, instead, to touch base with reality.

Simply, it involves re-stating, very plainly, and very firmly what ‘everybody knows’.

Or, even more simply, it involves saying, as Andrew Little said to John Key in Parliament, ‘Cut the crap‘.

In various ways and to various degrees it seems that just about every political commentator agrees with Andrew Little. Each in their own way are either telling John Key to ‘cut the crap’ or simply pointing out that he is speaking ‘crap’.

It’s a surreal spectacle to watch a Prime Minister who only a couple of months ago won a third term with his party gaining 47% of the popular vote now being routinely referred to as a liar and being derided and comprehensively criticised for his dubious political ethics.

Almost without exception commentators agree, despite his repeated assertions to the contrary that John Key (a) was either aware of the actions of the Prime Minister’s Office or tacitly approved them through the ‘two-track’ arrangement detailed in Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics‘  (b) has been in deep, continuous and highly compromising contact with blogger Cameron Slater and (c) feigns a ‘relaxed’ attitude while he dissembles, deceives, denies, ‘fibs’, ‘brain fades’ and simply lies.

We’ve even had the spectacle of the Prime Minister’s verbal and facial mannerisms being scrutinised – frame by frame – by a ‘body language expert’ on the frothy current events show Seven Sharp – and being conclusively found wanting.

http://tvnz.co.nz/seven-sharp/pm-s-pressure-video-6183341

For a good summary of this astonishing vein of commentary see Bryce Edwards’ column ‘The downfall of John Key“.

Duncan Garner’s scathing piece on Key’s latest claimed ‘brain fade’ over text contact with Slater is typical:

Key was either deliberately misleading, lying or he had another bout of brain fade. Any one of those three options is serious.

Remaining in contact with WhaleOil is more than bloody madness – it’s a death wish. The reason Key misled was because the spin machine was absent.

He was put on the spot. He didn’t want to tell the truth. Because the truth is ugly, embarrassing and politically uncomfortable.

Key’s brain fades aren’t new. He has form.

He forgot Lord Ashcroft came for dinner at his own house, he forgot about his TranzRail shares, he forgot he’d recommended Ian Fletcher for the role of the head of the GCSB. None of this is unimportant. Yes, there are those that say this doesn’t matter. And Key’s relying on that – and his enormous popularity – to get through this. It might even work.

And, as for “those that say this doesn’t matter“, Garner has a serve for them too:

Claiming this latest incident is a storm in a tea cup is a cop-out and those saying it are largely Key sycophants.

In fact, those ‘in Key’s corner’ on this also appear to have tacitly accepted Key’s lack of honesty and ethics. As Garner points out, their only point appears to be that Key will ‘get away’ with it electorally.

For example, Bill Ralston – a National Party supporter – plays the ‘storm in a teacup’ card in the following way (quoted in the Bryce Edwards link as the original is behind a paywall):

‘The trouble is, aside from the denizens of Twitter and talkback radio, few people genuinely care about these kinds of issues. Most, instead, are worried about their jobs, their wages, their families, their mortgage or some other pressing issue closer to home than the cloak-and-dagger world of politics and spying‘.

John Armstrong also frames his broadly critical piece by eulogising Key’s likely continuing support in  “voter land”:

As yet, there is nothing tangible to suggest the Prime Minister’s reputation has suffered damage where it really matters – in Voterland – despite the disturbing contents of the report of the rapidly completed, but extremely thorough inquiry conducted by Cheryl Gwyn, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which details the shocking abuse of power by Key’s office in the lead-up to the 2011 general election.

The subsequent fibs, half-truths, memory blanks and – worst of all – the misleading of Parliament on the Prime Minister’s part in the wake of the report’s release has so far not seen the electoral ground that Key has so successfully occupied for so long shifting from under him.

For Armstrong, then, this continuing popularity of Key in the polls is what makes calls for his resignation counterproductive:

Key is not going to resign. Calling on him to do so only ends up sounding shrill.

Were he and National on the end of some really bad showings in the opinion polls it would be a very different matter.

As an aside, presumably it was the Labour Party’s poor polling earlier in the year that transformed John Armstrong’s own call for Cunliffe to resign from “sounding shrill” to being intoned in serious and sombre fashion, worthy of a senior political journalist:

David Cunliffe is in deep political trouble. So deep that his resignation as Labour’s leader may now be very much in order.

It now emerges that – contrary to the point-blank denials that Cunliffe gave to a press conference [as opposed to Key’s denials to Parliament] only yesterday – that he did assist controversial businessman Donghua Liu in the latter’s application for New Zealand residency.

How can anyone have any confidence in what he says from here on?

Very fortunate indeed – for Armstrong – that the shrillness level of political pontifications has little to do with analogous facts of the matter and much to do with popularity as determined by political opinion polling.

This all presents us with a revealing paradox: While (almost) all the commentary is damning of John Key over his clear lying there seems little prospect of it impacting “where it really matters“.

To emphasise, everybody knows that Key has been involved in dirty politics.

Everybody knows that Key allowed the National Party’s political strategy to be harnessed to a robust machinery of political machination and smearing unprecedented in its deliberate coordination and subterfuge.

Everybody knows that Key’s relationship with Slater is deeply compromising and represents a Rasputin-like influence at the heart of government.

Beyond Key himself, more generally …

Everybody knows that Nicky Hager’s book ‘Dirty Politics’ provides an accurate account of the operation of a deliberate ‘two-track’ system of political smear campaigns.

Everybody knows that that system was deployed, quite deliberately and effectively, in the 2011 and 2014 election campaigns.

Everybody knows that numerous politicians and journalists have been compromised by or effectively work as part of this system.

And yet, despite everything that everybody knows it seems that nothing has changed. Key denies the obvious truth to no consequence.

The days tick by, political events and issues arise and, astoundingly, Key’s comments continue to be taken at face value and be given the kind of ‘benefit of the doubt’ that, surely, they no longer deserve.

John Armstrong’s comment (quoted above) concerning Cunliffe’s future pronouncements after the emergence of the Donghua Lui letter must apply ten-fold to Key: “How can anyone have any confidence in what he says from here on?”

Yet, apparently, we are meant to continue to have just such confidence – or act as if ‘we’ do. ‘We’ referring, in particular, to the journalists and media commentators who claim to keep us ‘informed’ about daily political events.

When this kind of disconnect happens between what we all know and how we are all supposed to ‘go on’ (as if we don’t know what everybody knows) a bewildered sense of the absurd and the bizarre takes hold. It’s as if the political world has become a surreal distortion of itself.

And, when that happens it’s also hard to know how to respond, how best actually to ‘go on’. We may even be tempted to leave the field to those who can intellectually tolerate the moral murk that lurks behind the befuddling nonsense.

But abandoning the field in this way is unwise because this sense of an exasperating surreality actually undermines much more than our mental ease.

It undermines our social world.

That’s because there’s another sense in which what ‘everybody knows’ – or takes as given – is central to our interactions with each other and to the institutions of our society.

Many of the things that everybody knows (that this is a five dollar note that I can use to buy a coffee; that this is a traffic light that will turn green soon, etc.) are things that oil the social and economic machine just because they are not usually under question.

Humans, to put it simply, rely on trust to sustain their social world.

That trust is usually unremarked and unremarkable – the shopkeeper accepts, on trust, the money offered (electronic or otherwise) in exchange for goods and services; the worker accepts, on trust, that they will be compensated at the end of the week for the work they do; the public accepts, on trust – ‘more or less’ – the kind of reality presented to them by the media.

This kind of trust is not some soft sentimentality or feeling. It is not the same as the trust you might have in a person’s promise to do something. It is, in fact, nothing other than the basis of the complex forms of coordination found in the human social world.

As I said, we just wouldn’t have a social world without this quite unremarkable but utterly essential form of trust.

Here’s a fascinating article on the economics of trust and why it matters – possibly to the tune of $12.4tn per year in the U.S.:

Being able to trust people might seem like a pleasant luxury, but economists are starting to believe that it’s rather more important than that. Trust is about more than whether you can leave your house unlocked; it is responsible for the difference between the richest countries and the poorest.

“If you take a broad enough definition of trust, then it would explain basically all the difference between the per capita income of the United States and Somalia,” ventures Steve Knack, a senior economist at the World Bank who has been studying the economics of trust for over a decade. That suggests that trust is worth $12.4 trillion dollars a year to the U.S., which, in case you are wondering, is 99.5% of this country’s income (2006 figures). If you make $40,000 a year, then $200 is down to hard work and $39,800 is down to trust.

In politics, that kind of trust also has a value although probably less computable in dollar terms.

What the National Party’s ‘two track’ system of political machination and management does – highlighted by, but not limited to, Key’s politically puzzling and continuing contact with Cameron Slater – is that it effectively corrupts the process by which the public is supposed to assess the actions of its government.

It undermines trust not just in what John Key says but in what the government is really doing and in what we know about that.

That is, the content, nature and source of political reportage and opinion has been actively and covertly (relative to the public’s awareness, at any rate) reorganised (i.e., corrupted) to distort that process and, when that happens, institutional trust is diminished.

I use the word ‘corrupt’ here in it’s technical sense – when a process that is meant to operate in one way is ‘adjusted’ to operate in another, usually in order to serve partial interests.

This is why it is quite beside the point whether or not New Zealanders ‘personally’ trust John Key – and therefore quite beside the point what the polls are saying.

The greatest harm is being done to something that the polls tell us little about – institutional trust. And that matters immensely and, incidentally, far more than John Key’s political career.

As the Forbes article (also linked to above) goes on to explain:

Economists distinguish between the personal, informal trust that comes from being friendly with your neighbors and the impersonal, institutionalized trust that lets you give your credit card number out over the Internet [or, in the present context, lets you read your daily paper or watch the news to find out about the political events of the day].

The two types of trust are correlated with each other, because we are more willing to trust people if we feel that, ultimately, we can call the police or get a fair hearing in court [or, in the present context, that we can be sure that covert political smears will be detected, punished and stopped].

“The reason why the U.S. is richer than Somalia is mostly not because of culture. The great thing about formal systems, when well designed, is that they make a little bit of public spirit, altruism or professionalism go a long way,” says Paul Seabright, an economics professor at the University of Toulouse.

Formal or institutionalized trust sounds cold and unpleasant, but it is just as useful as the personal variety, perhaps more so.

To emphasise, institutional trust is not some kind of unwise gullibility. It arises because of broadly accepted functional arrangements that are established to perform socially important tasks. Importantly, it is also usually underwritten by formal means to punish those who undermine that trust and correct any breaches of proper process.

The forger or fraudster risks imprisonment; the employer who fails to pay their workers can be fined; the habitual liar risks their reputation and not being believed (even when they are telling the truth).

But when institutional trust is deliberately undermined and no adverse consequences follow for those responsible for undermining it something far worse than a feeling of surreality, anger, cynicism, a desire for retribution or ‘disappointment’ results.

The result is the corruption of the institutions that we once trusted and loss of faith in using them again.

If you’ve ever met a classic ‘bare-faced liar’ you’ll know what I mean.

I’ve met two people like that. Both had a fascinating ability to state, to my face, facts that clearly were not facts.

Both had the same ability to deny that they had said something they had told me the previous day or even earlier in the same conversation. Both were masters at forging rhetorical escape routes ‘on the hoof’ usually through invention and further dissembling.

Conversations with them could quickly become dizzyingly intricate and debilitating – like walking through a house of distorting mirrors as you try to plot a clear course from entrance to exit.

But the most disconcerting feature of dealing with these people was that I reached the limits of how I could respond. That is, I lost trust in talk itself – in the very means (the ‘institution’) of interacting with people.

I hadn’t realised until encountering these people just how much I – and everyone else – rely upon some pretty simple discursive norms. Without these deep norms talk stops being an aid to building sociality. Instead, it becomes the biggest obstacle to sociality. It becomes corrupted.

When it comes to sustaining the social functionality of our talk with each other it’s not so much what is said that fundamentally matters – we can, and routinely do, disagree with each other in what we say or claim.

No, what really matters, what really underpins our discussion and debate – and supposedly therefore our democracy – is how we use language.

And, when you don’t know how to ‘go on’ – because the other person no longer uses language in the ways you expect – you can start to feel very strange. That’s simply because the social institution of talk has ceased to work.

It’s that sad and confused feeling of not knowing how to ‘go on’ that, I think, is what Leonard Cohen meant in the lyrics that prefaced this post when he wrote about how “Everybody got this broken feelingLike their father or their dog just died.

Losing someone close to us involves losing whole ways of acting that, till their death, we had come to rely upon, to trust, to take as givens in our daily lives.

Losing trust in institutions – such as the talk of a Prime Minister or the processes of political management used by a government – likewise involves losing entire ways of acting, entire forms of life, that we thought we could rely upon.

Worse still, it seems we are now expected to ‘go on’ as if that trust remains. We are expected to act as if we trust a government and a Prime Minister deeply implicated in an attack on that very same trust.

When we elected a Prime Minister who, it turns out, is a master at the art of dissimulation* it has led, unsurprisingly, to that same process of dissimulation becoming the blueprint for the government’s political management – through the establishment of a two-track system.

Then, when the network and machinery of ‘Dirty Politics’ were assembled the two-track modus operandum they allowed permitted a fundamental and full-frontal attack on some of the most important forms of institutional trust present in New Zealand’s political environment.

And there is nothing – so it is implied, even stated – that we can do about any of it.

This, now, is what everybody knows.

*From Wikipedia:

Dissimulation is a form of deception in which one conceals the truth. It consists of concealing the truth, or in the case of half-truths, concealing parts of the truth, like inconvenient or secret information. Dissimulation differs from simulation, in which one exhibits false information. Dissimulation commonly takes the form of concealing one’s ability in order to gain the element of surprise over an opponent.

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10 Responses to ‘Everybody knows …’ the politics of dissimulation

  1. Janine says:

    Very interesting article, a lot to think about.
    I’m reminded of how much we owe to Nicky Hagar for clearly exposing this ‘two track system’ to the light of day so we can begin to understand what is happening (has happened) to our public institutions.
    Interesting times ahead!

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Janine,

      Yes, Nicky Hager certainly has ‘torn the veil’ on the details of the process. Like you I think the important revelation is just how much public institutions and processes (e.g., OIA requests, the media, the security services, etc.) have routinely been compromised to serve political ends. This seems to be what we’ve come to and, worst of all, it seems to be what ‘we’, as a country, have now evolved to accept.

      Thanks very much for your comment!

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  2. bruce says:

    On reflection, a huge part of my personal agenda the last 3 or 4 years has been to disengage myself in every way possible from a system that I came to realise was so badly broken that it no longer merited my engagement with it.

    Key has been the manifestaion of that broken system throughout these years, and in my mind if a nation can continue to endorse an individual like him, mainly through self-interest, then that nation is not one that I want to consider myself to be a part of

    Am I in fact one of many?

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi bruce,

      Well you are certainly one of at least two 🙂

      I’ve never seen a need to identify with something (a ‘nation’) that acts at a level that is completely disconnected from me and so I can neither take credit nor blame for its ‘actions’ (e.g., voting in a particular government).

      Certainly for me the issue is less about Key than about the system of which he is an expression. He’s a clue rather than a focus in his own right.

      I definitely agree that the system is broken. That’s what I mean by ‘corrupt’ – it doesn’t operate in the way it claims to operate and is supposed to operate but, instead, in a way that its ‘operators’ want it to work.

      Thanks once again for taking the time to comment.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  3. The effect on public servants operating under this culture has also been highlighted by Hagar and I’ve come across it recently trying to find out about stagnated pay rates for creatives for the School Journal via the Ministry of Education; delays or even no responses, hiding behind ‘commercial sensitivity’ and the bringing of corporate lawyers to benign meetings. Its everywhere and has been steadily increasing for the last 30 years of corporatism of the public sphere, this is why the voters aren’t surprised by Keys actions, they’ve come to expect it, its infiltrated our public/cultural spaces over a generation. Love your considered and researched pieces Puddleglum.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi warlock of firetop mountain,

      Yes, it must be difficult in some parts of the public service to now do your job without being influenced by a general culture of political expediency, obfuscation and a sense of entitlement to act secretly. I’ve always thought that the best way to change people’s attitudes and values is to change the ‘structures’ they work in because changing those structures will automatically lead to changes in ‘culture’ and those, in turn, will reward changes in attitude and values.

      I think you’re right that corporatism has colonised far more than corporations which I guess was inevitable once ‘countervailing forces’ were dismantled through the ‘reform’ process of the 1980s and 1990s.

      Really appreciate the comment. Thanks.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  4. Pingback: Latest news: Monday-Friday, 8-12 December | Dirty Politics

  5. lgoldev says:

    This is superb commentary. Thanks.

  6. You probably know, Puddleglum, that of the ten biggest corporations in the world, eight are financial – no wonder,as you say, “corporatism has colonised far more than corporations”. Look how even our SOEs were set up in the corporate model, making their rhetoric about social/environmental concerns utterly meaningless. And don’t be fooled by images of social generosity. Of course, ANZ, for example, can afford to sponsor school sports and international cricket – a few million expended on this looks good but billions are extracted from both the public and private sectors of our economy in the form of debt-servicing. – HMS

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks so much for the comment Heather. Very much appreciated.

      When it comes to corporate generosity and social responsibility I always think about the T.S. Eliot quote from Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason:
      To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

      It would be interesting to do an ‘accounting’ of the overall ‘harm’ versus ‘benefit’ that comes from having such a prominent position for corporations in our society. It’s relatively easy to count the benefits (e.g., number of people employed) but harder to measure that harm.

      Once again, thanks for the comment!

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

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